Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bigwigs And Quorums At SEWRPC Dinner Freebie

Seems that 13 current commissioners out of 21, along with majorities of all four standing committees at the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Committee were in attendance at the agency's $1,000 annual dinner at The University Club.

But no public meeting notices for the dinner were filed - - according to blogger Gretchen Schuldt.

The committees are the Executive, Administrative, Planning and Research and Intergovernmental and Public Relations committees.

Their rosters are here.

I matched those rosters with the names of the dinner attendees supplied to Schuldt by SEWRPC, including:

Brian Dranzik and Supervisor John Weishan Milwaukee County; Thomas H. Buestrin, William E. Johnson and Gustav W. Wirth, of Ozaukee County; James T. Dwyer and Paul G. Vrakas, of Waukesha County; Adelene Greene and Robert W. Pitts of Kenosha County; Susan Greenfield of Racine County; Richard Hansen of Walworth County; Daniel S. Schmidt and David L. Stroik, SEWRPC Board chairman, from Washington County.

Unless I don't understand the Open Meetings law, gatherings of a majority membership of a public agency's governing board or committee have to be publicized in advance with a formal public notice so the general public or media can choose to attend and observe.

Even if they adjourn a meeting that was properly noticed - - as was the quarterly session at the War Memorial - - with a majority re-gathering a few blocks away, in this case to The University Club for the taxpayer-paid high-end dinner of tenderloin, cordon bleu and truffle cake, as Schuldt reported on her blog.

The dinner roster, according to SEWRPC, had plenty of experienced local and county officials, including Milwaukee County Board chairman Lee Holloway and Milwaukee County Board chairman James Dwyer.

Also attending, according to SEWRPC: Ken Yunker, the SEWRPC executive director, Kurt Bauer, SEWRPC's emeritus executive director, and now a consultant, plus current SEWRPC chairman Stroik and former chairman Buestrin.

That's a lot of public meeting management expertise experience to have committed such a PR stumble.


Jim Bouman said...

This is no mere "stumble". It is what has become standard operating procedure in so much of government--utter contempt for the citizens' rights under the Open Meetings law of 1976.

The state’s open meetings law declares that:
"In recognition of the fact that a representative government of the American type is dependent upon an informed electorate, it is declared to be the policy of this state that the public is entitled to the fullest and most complete information regarding the affairs of government as is
compatible with the conduct of governmental business."
Wis. Stat. § 19.81(1).

John Foust said...

Of course there have been cases and questions about social gatherings of government bodies. They may not be in the wrong. It depends on what they did and planned to do at the dinner. If it was a purely social event, it does not mean it needs to be an open meeting. Sure, they're not supposed to talk business.

The very definition of a "meeting" in Wis. Stat. § 19.82(2) says "the term does not include any social or chance gathering or conference which is not intended to avoid this subchapter..."

The AG's compliance guide talks about this in several places.

The Guide also summarizes the presumption of openness: "Under the rule of liberally construing the law to ensure this purpose, any doubts as to whether a particular gathering constitutes a “meeting” subject to the open meetings law should be resolved in favor of complying with the provisions of the law."

You have to ask yourself whether you had enough facts about the dinner to convince a judge, a DA, or the AG that they were indeed conducting business.

The line can be indistinct at dinners like this. Is it a meeting if they've gathered to praise themselves and the group's past activities, celebrating their work together, and reflecting on the future?

Even if you do open the dinner to reporters and the public, one would presume you'd want each to pay for their own dinner, yet the very act of requiring reservations also flies in the face of an open-door meeting. Or they could provide non-dinner seating. For that matter, they could remind everyone about the law before the dinner starts... "Please don't talk business here."

Compare and contrast with a non-dinner meeting with an agenda where items are simply discussed but no action of the body was planned to be taken. Clearly that meeting should be posted and open... so why not a dinner? Yet in another decision, the AG said it wasn't kosher for a council to be meeting casually in a lounge before meetings.